September 27, 2007

City Officials Discuss C-Town Moratorium

Print More

New development in Collegetown may come to a halt for the next year as City officials discuss a proposed moratorium for the area.
After a unanimous decision by the City’s Planning and Economic Development Committee last week to pass the moratorium, Common Council members are preparing to make the final vote.
If passed, the measure would mean no new proposals for development in Collegetown would be accepted for a period of 12 months. Exceptions, however, would be made for minor alterations of existing buildings within the affected area and for owners able to prove financial hardship as a result of the moratorium.
The moratorium was proposed in July after the City decided to commission an urban design plan for Collegetown — the only part of Ithaca without such a master plan directing development. With the financial support of Cornell and the Common Council, the City is engaging in a $150,000 study aimed to address problems outlined in the Collegetown Vision Statement — the product of a collaborative effort by local businesses, residents, city officials, students and Cornell representatives to improve the community.
According to Alderperson Mary Tomlan ’71 (D-3rd Ward), the moratorium is a necessary step in this process. �It makes sense to keep things in Collegetown stable while the plan is underway,” she said.
The CVS identifies shortcomings with the current Collegetown area, focusing on poor conditions arising over the past 20 years due to negligible planning. The Collegetown Vision Task Force, sponsored by the Common Council, undertook the challenge of creating the CVS, recommending new plans to accommodate pedestrian needs, parking demand, aesthetic makeovers and business interests.
“We support the findings and support the work of the task force,” said Joe Schwartz, public information officer for the University. “We think it’s important for the city to engage in long-term planning.”
Walking through Collegetown though, one might wonder exactly what development needs to be stopped by the moratorium. Lining the streets of the retail district, vacant storefronts are in no short supply and hardly ever is there a construction crew laying brick and mortar for new projects.
According to Bob Lama, owner of Lama Real Estate and a retail lot on 409 College Ave., the problem with Collegetown is a matter of the cyclic market affecting the area’s retail potential.
“Right now,” he said, “new development is taking place in the undeveloped commercial zones on the edge of the City, decreasing demand for retail lots in other parts of Ithaca.”
“It’s a soft market,” said Lama, “which is typically just a byproduct of new development. That market will tighten up again and become a hard market.”
Because of high rents in Collegetown, businesses are settling for cheaper real estate outside of the bustling streets near Cornell. Demanding upwards of $50 per square foot, storefronts in Collegetown are out of reach for many would-be business owners, severely limiting entry to the area’s vibrant market, according to Lama.
“It’s just about finding the right tenant,” Lama said.
In his view, the ideal tenant is one that can bring in enough money to pay the bill and still make a healthy profit. In Collegetown, this may actually be more unlikely than one might expect. Despite the large consumer base of the area — Collegetown being the most densely populated section of Ithaca — summer and winter break lulls can have a drastic effect on businesses.
This is just one of the problems highlighted by the CVS, but probably one of the most important. The task force hopes to bring in more retail to the area, but in order for successful recruitment, Collegetown must become a more diverse community with permanent residents able to keep local businesses afloat while college students are away. With more local residents, the area needs more parking — an already contentious issue with current overcrowding. More parking and auto-related needs compete with pedestrian access and plans for green space. All of this together presents quite a challenge for the urban design planners working to develop a cohesive strategy for the future of Collegetown.
“Making such an already complicated situation even worse due to new development would be devastating for planners and the CVS,” said Tomlan.
Not everyone is as adamant about the moratorium as Tomlan. Several property owners and business representatives spoke out against the measure, saying this delay would hurt owners looking to expand as well as the construction businesses they employ.
Taking a moderate stance, Alderperson Gayraud Townsend ’05 (D-4th Ward), representing the Collegetown district, feels the moratorium is well intentioned, but might hurt area business as it is currently written.
“I think it’s a good idea, but at the same time I don’t think all development should stop during the planning process,” he said.
Tomlan feels otherwise.
“I don’t see any direct impact in the overall year-long period,” she said. “The balancing act of this is to demonstrate that the greater good is served by the moratorium.”
Despite her enthusiasm for the measure, Tomlan is casting dire predictions for the moratorium’s next vote at the Common Council on Oct. 3.
While the Planning and Economic Development Committee passed the moratorium last week by a 4-0 vote, Tomlan said that getting the required 6 votes from the full council will be tough due to a wider range of interests represented at the meeting.
“It’s not something I would bet on,” she said.